The Strange and Distant (and Beautiful) Land of Weezer’s Blue Album 30 Years Later

The LA quartet’s debut endures as one of the greatest alternative projects of the last three decades, championing otherness and desire through its emo, power-pop and punk rock vestiges.

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The Strange and Distant (and Beautiful) Land of Weezer’s Blue Album 30 Years Later

Throughout the year, Paste will be looking at the most important album releases from 1994 as they turn 30, from Hole to Nas to Green Day and beyond. This is 1994, She’s in Your Bones, a column of essays dedicated to one of the best years in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Content Warning: This essay contains mentions of suicide and drug use.

May 10th, 1994 was a pretty good day for new alt music. Sunny Day Real Estate put out Diary, Sonic Youth dropped Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, the Indigo Girls made some noise with Swamp Ophelia. If that kind of release lineup happened nowadays, we’d all marvel over its power and split ourselves right down the middle just trying to figure out which one to lend more focus to. So, what does it say about May 10th when the best album to come out that day was none of those records? No, that title belongs to a self-titled album by a Los Angeles band called Weezer, a project packed to the brim with songs previously demoed in Santa Monica by its then-20-year-old frontman, Rivers Cuomo—who had moved to Southern California from Connecticut with his then-metal band Avant Garde (later Zoom).

But Weezer began in earnest on Valentine’s Day in 1992, as Cuomo, drummer Patrick Wilson, guitarist Jason Cropper and bassist Matt Sharp joined forces. They’d play their first gig opening (well, technically “closing”) for Dogstar one month later at Raji’s in LA, and the story goes that Cuomo gave his bandmate Matt Sharp one year to snag a record deal. If they couldn’t break big, Cuomo was going to accept a scholarship to Berkeley. Lo and behold, as one year was creeping up fast, Geffen Records’ A&R guy Todd Sullivan caught wind of a demo tape Weezer had recorded on August 1st, 1992 and signed the band in June 1993. The band initially wanted to self-produce their debut, but Geffen was pressuring them to pick a producer.

Before 1993, Cars bandleader Ric Ocasek had already started assembling a pretty solid production résumé—including Suicide’s Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, Bad Brains’ Rock for Light, the Cars’ Heartbeat City and Door to Door, Black 47’s Fire of Freedom and five of his own solo albums. None of those, except for Heartbeat City, were particularly earth-shattering, but Ocasek was a bit of a musical auteur in his own right and would later produce Nada Surf’s High/Low and Guided By VoicesDo the Collapse in the back-half of the 1990s. But right smack in the middle of both halves of his production career, Ocasek met a spry young Weezer at Electric Lady Studios in New York City to make what would become Weezer—or, canonically, the Blue Album.

Cuomo and Sharp were the main vocalists—the former helming the lead, the latter adding falsetto harmonies—and the whole band would practice singing songs like they were in a barbershop quartet to strengthen the chemistry among the foursome. They brought 15 songs to Electric Lady Studios, later nixing four of them—including “I Swear It’s True,” “Mykel and Carli” and “Getting Up and Leaving,” which would end up on the deluxe release of Pinkerton years later. One of Ocasek’s brilliant measures of guidance came when he convinced Weezer to move their pickups from the necks of their guitars to the bridges, leading to the songs adopting a poppier glow. Cuomo and Sharp also banned reverb in the studio and emphasized nothing but downstrokes—engineer Chris Shaw even spoke to the recording manifesto, claiming that Weezer’s “overriding concept” turned the guitars and bass into a “single, 10-string instrument playing in unison.”

While making the album, Cropper got fired—on account of his girlfriend getting pregnant and his subsequent erratic behavior, which, according to Karl Koch, included him screaming from the Electric Lady rooftop. In turn, Cuomo and Sharp were worried that he was fucking up the band’s chemistry. So, they replaced him with Brian Bell and Cropper has since admitted that Weezer firing him was the right choice. Funnily enough, Bell plays no guitar on the Blue Album, even though he’s credited as having done so. After Cropper got nixed, Cuomo re-recorded all of his parts and had Bell add backing vocals throughout the tracklist. “Rivers came in and said, ‘I’m firing the guitar player, and I’m going to do all his guitar parts over.’ I said, ‘You can’t do that!’ But he did. In one take,” Ocasek later recalled to Rolling Stone in 2014.

And all of those parts Cuomo re-recorded have not only stood the test of time, but they’ve remained evocative of alt-rock’s greatest era. The riffs on the Blue Album are massive, colossal even. And for a record so indebted to the simplistic ingenue of pop songwriting, Cuomo’s songs never feel recycled or hammered into the ground. His singing is melodic, sophisticated and handsome—ringing out like he remains at a standstill while the ensemble of his bandmates go berserk behind him, like a brick house sewn to the ground during an F5 tornado. The distortion stacks on top of itself, yet the hooks cut through like razors. The Blue Album, from the first strums of “My Name is Jonas” to the final tolling notes of “Only in Dreams,” resists any notion of ever becoming archaic. There’s a reason why Gen-Xers, Millennials and Zoomers all love this fucking album; it’s cross-generational and definitive, as historical in perpetuity as it once was groundbreaking and affirmative.

Where were you when you first heard the Blue Album? For me, it was Christmas 2007 while I was playing Guitar Hero III and trying to complete the “European Invasion” solo tier by acing “My Name is Jonas.” I remember not really enjoying it at first. But some years later (nine, to be exact), I would have my first kiss while listening to the song in my first girlfriend’s dad’s basement, only to be interrupted by him yelling down the steps and asking me if I’d ever seen Jason and the Argonauts (I had, which I relayed back to him in between smooches, as one does in the most important moment of their life up until that point). I hadn’t explored the Blue Album beyond the singles by that point, really, but I grew to love all 10 of its chapters slowly over time. I think VH1 introduced me to the “Buddy Holly” music video; my YouTube algorithm probably led me to Weezer’s Live on Letterman performance of “Say It Ain’t So”—where Cuomo wore very baggy pants and stood oddly and still while the rest of the band rocked out behind him, because he’d just had corrective surgery on one of his legs, which was longer than the other.

But this was around the same time I was watching the entirety of One Tree Hill for the first time, getting stoked beyond belief on Nada Surf’s early catalog and having life-altering medical tests performed on me. I was not yet defiled by the problematic, pitifully charming, cheap scum-rock of Pinkerton, nor was I saved by the guitar’s blazing renaissance of Maladroit or championing myself as annoyingly pro-White Album. I was a novice Weezer appreciator down to my core, asking everyone I knew if they’d ever heard of the song “Buddy Holly” and getting kind of, sort of, really bummed when they didn’t care about it or the Happy Days-embodying, Spike Jonze-directed music video that accompanied it in 1994; I was having electromyography done on my arms and legs, having every nerve in my body zapped into oblivion by a faceless lab coat technician and finding solace in the only Green Album song I knew: “Island in the Sun.”

My 16th year is mostly a blur to me now, save for everything I’ve ever written about it up until this point. I got my first car that summer and started doing drugs around the same time. My then-girlfriend was fooling around with her neighbor, and left for a two-week vacation after breaking up with me the day after I confided in her about being on HRT (still a toss-up over which part was the true motivating source for her ending things). It was around then, too, that I’d finally made it to my fifth Weezer song, “Undone – The Sweater Song.” While the power-pop of “Buddy Holly” and the angsty, emo and nerdish “Say It Ain’t So” were doing wonders for my music taste in the first year after wearing my Walmart-exclusive, “clean version” CD copy of Drake’s Take Care out, I couldn’t get enough of “Undone – The Sweater Song.” The track was a living, breathing proto-“inject this into my veins” meme for me. If I’d had a Spotify account in 2014, I would wager that that song would have landed at #1 on my year-end Wrapped playlist.

Admittedly, I listened to “Undone – The Sweater Song” the first time I tried to kill myself. I can’t attribute the choice to anything but believing in the melodrama of the song’s skyscraping and free-falling tempo. Or maybe it was the thick distortion during the chorus, or the song’s verbose, cluttered, claustrophobic spoken-word intro—as Sharp delivers a monologue while snippets of conversation bubbling to the surface beyond him. Honestly, it was probably the “lying on the floor, I’ve come undone” line that did it. A product of a TV-first household, and an only child tasked with building my own microcosms of fantasy and wonder, everything needed to be cinematic for me to make sense of it back then—and soundtracking trauma and triumphs was a part of where my psyche went back then, and I tend to believe it still does.

I’m not trying to romanticize death in that way—because many of my friends had their own confrontations with that finality in ways that I am not meant to ever fully understand—but when you experience your first heartbreak around the same time you begin hormone replacement therapy, it’s not necessarily a cocktail worth downing. And to go into your first-ever relationship and learn you’ve been cheated on, only to come home and slather testosterone enanthate gel all over your stomach—no one has a remedy for what enters your head in those circumstances. A decade later and I still don’t have the answers.

But, if Green Day’s Dookie was the record that helped me embrace my own queerness, then Weezer’s Blue Album helped me better understand my own gender—if you can even believe a record like that could spawn such a complicated, essential internal dialogue. But after telling myself I’d never listen to “Undone – The Sweater Song” again [Editor’s Note: I did, indeed begin listening to it again shortly after saying that], I began looking down the tracklist further, plunging deep into the crevices not plastered on the Billboard alternative and rock charts. “Holiday,” “In the Garage,” “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” “Only in Dreams”—what rowdy, perfect, catchy nuggets of pop-rock that would inspire an entire generation of emo kids to start bands of their own. And on an album so fucking perfect, those songs aren’t even deep cuts; they’re as crucial and momentous as the songs that were charting teaser singles. So few records of Weezer’s era did that, and so few have since.

I have known I am intersex for 11 years, but I have always been non-binary, even if it took me 25 years to finally get with the program and put it in my writer bio. If I hadn’t been put on HRT at 15 for a sex chromosome disorder, I like to believe I still would have reached a conclusion about my identity at some point down the road—maybe it would have come a few years later than it did, but who knows. I am not going to come out and say that the Blue Album is a trans record. That would be silly. But, the tracklist does brandish a blueprint for my own slow-burn gesture of coming out. It feels like a radical portrait of falling in-between parts of yourself, both as you’re growing up and growing out. “You remain turned away, turning further every day” goes the chorus of “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” a siren of my own cry for help that would, post-suicide attempt, land me in therapy I still haven’t left; “In the garage, I feel safe” beckons me back home, where the dogs have always sniffed my hands lovingly and not questioned the gender of who they belong to; “You can’t resist her, she’s in your bones,” the Tabula rasa of my own femininity and lack of one-way-or-the-other gender planted firmly at the genesis of “Only in Dreams.”

The Blue Album is built to service queer people, if only for its willingness to reclaim the geekiness of being othered. No, Rivers Cuomo is not a signpost for queers or trans people—the songs he wrote for Weezer’s debut, however, very well might be, if you’ve decided that “Only in Dreams” and “In the Garage” happen to make sense in the context of your own queer destiny, too. In the 10 songs of the Blue Album, you can be weird as fuck, and that’s where I’ve landed—in the yesteryear of my own otherness, now using such a gray area to further my own personal liberation. At 16, I was jacked up on new hormones, closeted in more ways than one and wrestling with the newfound and beguiling pleasures (and trenches) of young romance on the fly. I wasn’t strong enough or smart enough then to hold the Blue Album properly; I don’t know if I have arrived in that place fully yet, either, but I’m here and I’m writing this essay—so a first step has been taken, somehow. And you can’t often get to a place like this without bringing a weapon, and my blade, today, is the Blue Album.

Now, in 2024, the Blue Album song I return to the most wasn’t even a Blue Album song in the first place. “Susanne” was written and released at the same time as Weezer’s debut, but it was relegated to being “Undone – The Sweater Song”’s B-side. It’s not just some deluxe-edition special inclusion! The track took Cuomo’s very slight country-rock bravado and paired it with timeless pop riffs and a chorus-verse-chorus-verse construction. Featuring a breakdown solo from Cuomo that only emphasizes just how virtuosic of a guitar player he’s been for 30 years, “Susanne” is so catchy that I am legitimately pissed off that it’s not the Blue Album’s 11th (and maybe even best) song.

And yet, what sticks with me most are the “I haven’t much I can give you in return, only my heart and a promise not to turn, but I’ll sing to you every day and night” lines. They recede from the otherness that defines much of Weezer, instead facing the hope of, on the surface, a fleeting, dreamy romance—but, in my heart of hearts, the “you’re all that I wanted of a girl” line better characterizes my own genderless existence, my desire to have a foot in both worlds just as my DNA does. When Rivers Cuomo wrote “Susanne” more than three decades ago, it was not for the intersex and trans kids who would, eventually, find it and hear themselves in the hooks—but, hell, ain’t all great pop music supposed to resonate? Like Cuomo’s message to Susanne, when I met Weezer, I was all alone. So, it’s fitting that I’ve found such recent salvation in the B-side to one of their songs that, 10 years ago, played on repeat as the wildness of living could no longer outmuscle my eagerness to make nice with the sewn-shut door-slam of death. If it wasn’t so real, I might dare say it’s poetic somehow.

Few artists of Weezer’s era put out a masterpiece on their first attempt—and that has, if I’m being honest, kneecapped the band ever since. But, it hasn’t kneecapped my adoration for them. In fact, their relentless ability to continuously one-up their own audacity makes me love them even more. The Blue Album-versus-Pinkerton debate still rages on, and neither side has given up an inch (I don’t have a horse in that race, as I am staunchly Team Maladroit, the black sheep third option only I acknowledge); Weezer’s up-and-down output has made them somewhat of a polarizing band. The run from the White Album through OK Human alone solidifies the band’s uneven, complicated oeuvre, as the three records stuck in the middle of that string of releases—Pacific Daydream, the Teal Album and the Black Album—are stiflingly mediocre. Cuomo’s songwriting is still strong; he wrote one of the best pop songs of the last 10 years (“She Makes Me Laugh”) in 2016 and gave it to the Monkees for their last non-holiday studio album (Good Times!).

When you make a record like the Blue Album, you buy yourself a lifetime of trust. Weezer have dropped 15 studio LPs in the last 30 years, and maybe eight of them could be classified as “good” or better (I’m still on the fence about the Red Album, even if “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On a Shaker Hymn)” is one of the band’s greatest-ever compositions), but those 10 songs from that debut record make me believe that Cuomo and his bandmates have another masterpiece in them, somewhere. Right now, the Beatles have the highest composite review score (8.9) on Pitchfork’s website. Weezer has the lowest (5.6). Fittingly, as I look at my Paul McCartney tattoo while writing this, I have, again, fallen somewhere in-between. So, may we all continue to wear thongs with “Weezer” stitched on the crotch and argue about whether the Blue Album is still, undoubtedly, greater than Pinkerton forever; let us light the candles of pop-rock goodness and perform a seance in the name of a shred with the reverb hollowed out. So, sit back, lock in and let the cringe fade. There’s something in the Blue Album for you, for me and for everyone. It’s like what David Letterman said at the end of the episode the band featured on in 1994: “How ‘bout that Weezer? Cool, huh?”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste’s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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